Why Not: revisiting the gruesome torture on ‘Comfort women’ and Biranganas
"Around 3:30 pm, I took a shower at the pond and came to my home. My mother was sitting in front of the house, eating lunch. All of a sudden, Pakistani soldiers entered our house and kicked over my mother's bowl of food. Scared, I hid under the bed. The Pakistani soldiers grabbed me from under the bed where I was hiding," Maya Khatun, a bespectacled woman of around 50s, recounts while sitting in her dimly lit home in Bangladesh's Sirajganj.
Around 3000 km away from Maya Khatun's home, Lee Okseon, a seemingly nonagenarian woman, sitting in her home in South Korea, also recounts her horrific ordeals. She was living in Daegu when a Japanese and a Korean national came and told her to go with them, and that she would be rewarded. The then 14-year-old Okseon did not know any better and went with the soldiers, alongside some other women.
They were taken to China on a train. She was asleep on the train and the first thing she saw after opening her eyes was "a lot of Japanese soldiers". From there, she and other women were taken to a "comfort station", a place where women were kept as sex slaves during the Japanese invasion of Korea.
Both Khatun and Okseon are among multiple subjects of Bangladeshi-Korean filmmaker Shekh Al Mamun's 2020 documentary "Why Not". The film was screened at the 8th Kolkata People's Film Festival in the first week of April 2022.
"Why Not" brings forth the issue of Korean comfort women and Bangladeshi Biranganas. The documentary, through memory threads, weaves together a story of what it means to be survivors of sexual violence during war, and their unquenchable thirst for justice and redressal.
Decades before the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, which alerted the world about the use of rape as a tool of war and brought forth international conventions, two monumentous events took place in Asia. The Japanese invasion and later control of East Asia in the early half of the twentieth century, and the Bangladeshi Liberation War. Both the events witnessed rape or sexual slavery as a form of warfare.
The self-funded "Why Not" started with a journey from South Korea to Bangladesh. The film opens with a view of Seoul with Mamun's voiceover explaining how the two countries-one where he was born and another where he has been living for the past 21 years-share a violent past.
In the first few minutes of the film, we see the famous "Statue of Peace" in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. The Statue of Peace was unveiled in 2011 and is a venue for weekly Wednesday protests. Since 1992, Korean comfort women have been coming in front of the Japanese Embassy every Wednesday to hold a protest and demand redressal from the Japanese government over their use of women as sex slaves during the war.
The documentary then takes us to Bangladesh's Sirajganj. It takes us through a montage of women saying their names and often their fathers' or husbands' names, the name of their villages out loud, etching their identity in the audience's memory. The victims then start recounting their horrific ordeal of 1971.
Each woman's experience was interwoven with another woman's experience, following a non-linear pattern. Each of them merges with the other. Their stories, their experiences interlinked. Their shared pain is painted for the audience.
The film, which took two years to be made, interviews multiple survivors and focuses on their pain and anger in the absence of redressal. It also features an interview with the acclaimed Bangladeshi journalist Shahriar Kabir. Kabir helps the audience in contextualising the events, not only in the pre-independence Bangladesh but also the societal and governmental failure after 1975 to adequately respond to the pain and demands of Birangonas.
He explains why the Birangonas suddenly started disappearing from public life and memory after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's assassination and the government change in 1975. Complete government apathy towards Birangonas and sympathy towards collaborators and Pakistan led to this disappearance.
In Korea, Yujima Tsukasa, a renowned photographer who worked with comfort women, explained how, despite decades of protests, the Japanese government refused to recognise their role in trafficking sex slaves. Their history is not taught in Japan's schools and they haven't taken any steps to apologise to the comfort women properly.
Most of the comfort women have passed away due to old age. The ones who are left are at the last stage of their lives. Their health did not permit the maker Mamun to interview more than one surviving comfort woman. Hence, the film has more interviews with Bangladeshi survivors than Koreans.
However, the director used stock footage and videos of old interviews of comfort women to shine a light on their stories. "Why Not" sees such usage of old footage either from Bangladesh's Liberation War Museum or South Korea's House of Sharing which shelters the comfort women.
Despite such a brave attempt to bring forth the similar histories of the two countries, the film often lacks balance. The Bangladeshi side of the story and history seemed more fleshed out than the Korean side in spite of Mamun and his team having a harder time shooting in Bangladesh due to social stigma.
The film also suffers from what Nayanika Mookherji wrote in "The Birangonas (War Heroines) in Bangladesh: Generative Resilience of Sexual Violence in Conflict through Graphic Ethnography" (2021). Mookherji argues that often capturing and recovering or documenting the 'untold stories' or 'real pasts' of rape survivors in war and conflict through oral history and testimonies lead to a limited visualisation.
The lenses through which the survivors are seen, often reproduce patriarchal guilt, silence, honour, stigma, ostracisation etc. Mamun's visualisation often falls prey to these lenses and doesn't capture the Birangonas or comfort women beyond their horrific ordeals. Their identity as women, as fighters, often gets overlooked, as if, their past defines their entire existence.
Regardless of its shortcomings, "Why Not" tries to bridge a 3000 km gap through a gendered history of two countries marred with a bloody history and public amnesia about their own women. It also reiterates the demands for long eluding justice for these victims.
The survivors' bold demand for justice, their fight for survival in an apathetic society and state, their hope for a better future for their offsprings, and a future without war and violence, makes the film a memorable one.